Last Thursday night I attended a Q & A session hosted by the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and LaTrobe University. It featured an “all star” panel comprising Anna Burke member for Chisolm, Sarah Hanson-Young Greens senator, Julian Burnside QC, David Manne, human rights lawyer and Dr Savitri Taylor, lecturer LaTrobe University.
It was a sellout event.
I want to share with you the insights I gained from the evening and the feeling of shame and despair I left with. But before I do I want to discuss briefly a basic and important legal principle. I hope it will provide some context to the concern I have (we should all have) over this governments’ and previous government’s treatment of the refugee crisis gripping this country and the world.
The principle is the Rule of Law. What is it? Why is it important?
The principle had been discussed and explored since Aristotle’s time. The Magna Carta was the first implementation of the principle in English law.
It seeks to prevent arbitrariness by leaders and governments and prevent the indiscriminate exercise of power. It is intended to make governments accountable for their actions.
There is no universally accepted definition but there is universal acceptance of
the following elements.
(1) that the people (including, one should add, the government) should be ruled by the law and obey it and (2) that the law should be such that people will be able (and, one should add, willing) to be guided by it.
Over time it has included the separation of powers, and independent judiciary, democratically appointed law makers, an open and transparent law making process, equality before the law, liberty for all, free speech, free assembly, presumption of innocence, trial by jury, right to legal representation, right to a fair hearing etc.
In some countries these “rights” are enshrined in a bill of rights or a constitution.
In Australia, we do not have a bill of rights but we do have a constitution that includes some of the above.
Rule of law is intended to be the unwritten rules and principles that govern the actions of decision makers in our society. I have always thought that Australia was “safe” because the Rule of law was alive and strong.
I don’t think that any more.
This is what I learned last Thursday evening.
1. There are 30,500 refugees in indefinite detention in Australia and at off-shore processing centres. This includes about 2,000 children. The fact that we say “about” is an indictment in itself. Why don’t we know the precise number?
2. Some refugees are held (indefinitely) in suburban centres in major cities. There is probably a centre within 10 km of you now.
3. 1,459 people are held on Nauru and Manus Islands
4. The cost of the government’s asylum seeker policy is difficult to measure because money is taken from a number of departmental budgets. But it has been estimated at $5 billon per year.
5. Take an alternate policy where we agreed to keep asylum seekers in detention for no more than a month (in Australia) for health and security checks and then released them into the community (particularly regional centres) with no welfare benefits but an ability to find jobs. They would then be required to report regularly until their application was finalised. The estimated cost of such a program would be $500 million. Being 1000th of the current cost.
6. The town of Nihill has been revived by resettled refugees. The local duck factory Luv-A-Duck was facing certain closure before resettled refugees and a revived spirit by locals brought it back to almost full production.
7. Our regional centres are calling out for assistance as young and old desert the country for the major cities. The Nihill story can be replicated elsewhere. How many of you are familiar with the Nihill revival story? With any “good news” refugee story?
8. In the late 1970s, when confronted with a large influx of refugees from Vietnam, the Fraser government opted to resettle them in a humane manner. Simple as that. No deterrence. No border protection. Leadership par excellence.
9. In contrast in 2015, when the world was appalled by the sight of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on the shore of Turkey, Tony Abbott was asked what will Australia do to help? He said that he thought Australia was already doing enough. It was only public pressure that saw him agree to accept any Syrian refugees. No leadership.
10. The world is facing a refugee crisis greater than the crisis after World War II.
11. If we wish to reduce the influx of refugees, it would help to stop waging war in their country. It would help if we didn’t slash foreign aid.
12. The current oppressive asylum seekers policy has been developed by both major parties over 25 years. It has sunk to greater and greater depths of inhumanity by measured incremental steps.
13. Currently asylum seekers are faced with indefinite detention. Some have been in detention for more than 7 years.
14. To secure a temporary visa refugees are required to complete, in English, a 62 page form containing 184 questions.
15. Their fate literally depends on them completing the form correctly. Regulations prevent amendments to the form at a later time.
16. The government has slashed to nil all Legal Aid for migration work. As such refugees depend on volunteers to assist them.
17. If you wish to visit a detention centre you need to ring in advance, state who you wish to see and make an appointment. Often times requests to visit are turned down.
18. Anna Burke and Sarah Hanson-Young reported that even politicians are asked to leave their phones at reception and not to talk to the detainees when they visit detention centres.
19. In 2014, the Abbott government issued a directive to all ministers and federal public servants that from hereon, detainees were to be referred to as “illegal”. This is despite the fact that the term “illegal” does not appear anywhere in the Migration Act. Almost overnight the press and media were filled with stories of illegal arrivals. Asylum seekers were portrayed as queue jumpers. Rule breakers. Cheats. NOTHING IS FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH.
20. Australia has a dual system. While we are signatories to a number of UN treaties and conventions, including the Convention on Refugees, the terms of these treaties and conventions do not become Australian law until they are ratified by the Australian parliament. No ratification means there is no need to comply.
21. In fact, the Abbott government has revoked legislation that previously ratified some UN conventions.
22. The recent High Court decision validating offshore detention centres was no surprise to human rights lawyers. After the challenge was commenced the Abbott government introduced legislation to close all loopholes and defeat any challenge. The legislation was to operate retrospectively.
23. Sarah Hanson-Young related the “passing” of the legislation. Parliament’s winter term was to close on the Thursday (in June). Canberra was as usual for that time of year, cold and miserable, and the politicians were keen to return home. On the Wednesday afternoon, the bill was introduced into the House of Representatives. It was not first reviewed by any committee. It had bipartisan support. It was passed quickly by the House of Representatives with minimal debate. The next day the Greens sought to hold up the passage of the bill in the Senate. They proposed amendment after amendment until about 1.00am Friday morning when a vote was called and the bill became law.
24. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers breaches all UN conventions dealing with refugees. Australia is guilty of gross contraventions of human rights. Australia’s behaviour would not be accepted by their European trade partners. It is the Australian government that is acting illegally not the asylum seekers.
24. Asylum seekers are not entitled to collect benefits or to work.
25. Those visiting refugees in detention centres have reported an alarming deterioration in mental health.
26. The process is designed to crush their spirit so that they “volunteer” to return home.
27. Since when have people fleeing from trouble become trouble themselves?
28. There is no logic to the current policy. Think about it. If we are concerned about people undertaking hazard maritime journeys, why would we turn boats around in the middle of the ocean? Why don’t we conduct search and rescue operations when boats capsize?
29. If we wish to stamp out villainous people smugglers, why would we treat with them and pay them to turn their boats around?
30. If it is about security, do we need to crush those who have passed all security checks? The Fraser government response to the refugee crisis after the Vietnam war did not compromise Australia’s security. Today we have far more “intelligence” and better systems to process refugees.
31. If it is about deterrence, why is it about deterrence? Why do we want to discourage people from coming here? Have we run out of space? Have we run out of resources? (Remember this policy is costing us $5 billion per year). Australia is no backwater country. Those wishing us harm know there is every chance they will get caught. Why risk it?
32. The logic of deterrence is inhumane. It means the harsher and more harmful processes will be more successful. As such we have successive governments competing between themselves to see who can be the most cruel in the interests of deterrence.
33. Should we harm children, as we do, in the interests of deterrence?
34. David Manne explained that the government is engaging in CONSCIOUS CALCULATED CRUELTY. Think about it. Would we tolerate such policies in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Guantanamo Bay……?
35. Why are we prepared to lock people up indefinitely? Being people who have committed no crime. Being people for all intents and purposes who are good people. Why do we want to crush their spirit? To demonise them? How have we come to this?
35. The Australia I know is warm and generous. We are a nation of immigrants. We have one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world. Multiculturalism delights in difference and condemns discrimination.
36. Notwithstanding Australia is antipathetic towards the plight of the refugees in our midst. Antipathetic to the gross violation of human rights. Antipathetic towards the inhumanity of our government.
37. There is no such thing as casual racism. Racism is racism.
38. Anna Burke is retiring from politics at the end of her current term. Recently she was campaigning in Box Hill and in her team were a group of second generation Chinese. Box Hill has a strong Chinese population. A passerby shouted out to a team member “Go home you chink!” To which he responded “Where, Nunawading?”
39. When the Tampa crisis was burning hot, Burke received more correspondence about the livestock transport ship The Comora than she did about Tampa.
40. Burke’s electorate covers a number of Universities and educational institutions. Her electorate is well educated. But to this day, she receives more mail about live sheep exports than she does about refugees and detainees.
41. Aladdin Sisalem was born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents. During the Iraqi war he was detained by authorities and tortured. He fled detention and worked his way to Indonesia where he boarded a boat for Australia. His boat was intercepted by the Australian Navy. He was placed in detention on the PNG’s Manus Island. In 2003, he was the last detainee left on the island. His parentage (his father was Palestinian from Egypt) created distrust among authorities. Legal attempts to relocate him to Australia had failed. So Aladdin wandered the island by himself (under the watchful eyes of Australian authorities). No one cared about him. Then the press learned that it was costing taxpayers $25,000 a day to keep Aladdin on Manus Island and he was brought back…..quickly. John Laws, Sydney shock jock, came to learn that Aladdin had left behind his cat “Honey” and he began a radio campaign to raise money to bring Honey home. The campaign eventually reunited Aladdin with his cat. …. I am not making this up.
42. Every week Sarah Hanson-Young receives hate mail and death threats because of her position on asylum seekers.
43. There is no Rule of Law when it comes to making decisions on the fate of refugees or dealing with their liberty.
44. The fundamental principle being that governments should do no harm, is missing in Australia. No one seems concerned. We keep electing the major parties despite their inhumanity to refugees.
45. Shame Australia Shame.